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At the beginning of December, figures from DC Health showed that COVID-19 cases reported in District schools — public, charter and private — during the school year surpassed 2,000 with the majority involving elementary school students.
In those environments, many teachers, like one who spoke with The Informer on the condition of anonymity, said they often struggle with following social distancing protocols and fulfilling the requirements of a job.
“So much of the rubric they use to evaluate us is based on communication with students [but] little kids often don’t speak loudly or clearly,” the second grade teacher said in reference to the IMPACT evaluation given to D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) teachers annually. “To have them three feet away with an air purifier that adds white noise makes it difficult to hear everyone.”
The veteran teacher, who returned to their Ward 8 classroom in February during DCPS’ phased reopening period, recounted often feeling nervous about striking the balance between executing their job and ensuring student safety.
However, months into the 2021-2022 school year they’ve come to see social distancing as a mandate that makes sense only on paper. Given the frequency of small group activities, the teacher recounted even administrators coming to terms with elementary teachers having to closely interact with young people who’ve fallen a couple of grade levels behind during the pandemic.
“If they told me to teach my best without being evaluated, I probably would’ve pushed myself to keep my distance more often,” the teacher said. “Teachers don’t deserve the stress of thinking that if they teach their best in small groups, kids may be at greater risk of catching COVID.”
Elected Officials Demand More Support for Teachers and Schools
A study conducted by American University earlier this year found that IMPACT overwhelmingly incited feelings of fear, distrust and competition among teachers, especially in schools considered low performing. An accompanying racial equity review revealed IMPACT evaluators’ biases against non-white teachers and compelled calls to get rid of IMPACT.
As District health officials continue to track COVID-19’s Omicron variant, teachers in some of the District’s schools, particularly those with staff vacancies, say they still find some difficulty in simultaneously maintaining COVID-19 protocols and meeting the demands of their job.
In response, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced an infusion of $22 million that supports the addition of a COVID-19 strategy and logistics coordinator and recruitment of substitute teachers.
However, community members continue to raise concerns about the need for updated amenities and fully operational HVAC systems in some of the District’s schools. In September, parents and teachers converged on a D.C. Council hearing where, for hours, they questioned the prevalence of broken HVAC systems in District schools.
In that same month, when 80 percent of Johnson Middle School’s sixth grade class entered quarantine, the school’s Parent Teacher Organization said incomplete learning spaces and difficulties teachers face in fulfilling social distancing protocols have impeded efforts to keep students safe.
D.C. State Board of Education President Zachary Parker contends that some students and teachers remain in environments that, even with teachers’ best efforts, cannot meet their safety needs. While he recently called on D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) to fully reinstate the indoor mask mandate to protect children while off school grounds, Parker continues to weigh in on matters concerning day-to-day operations.
“I give grace to our LEAs and schools that are working to meet the demands of this pandemic [but] our city should keep its promise to parents,” said Parker, who represents Ward 5 on the state board.
“A number of schools still don’t have fully functioning air filtration systems and that’s out of the control of school leaders and teachers. That’s more about the system and how the city is managing the crisis,” he said.
A Parent Weighs In
Since the school year began, Ward 8 resident Cell Jamison recounted having to keep her children home amid COVID-19 outbreaks at their elementary school and daycare. To prevent them from contracting COVID-19, Jamison said she encourages proper handwashing and ingestion of sea moss and elderberry tea.
At their elementary school, Jamison’s daughters often keep their bookbags, laptop and school supplies to themselves. They also maintain fidelity to COVID-19 protocols.
While Jamison showed some apprehension to her daughters going outside for recess, she said she has come to terms with the reality that they need some time to run around, especially after being sequestered in one classroom for several hours.
All in all, Jamison expressed no qualms about her daughters’ school’s COVID-19 protocols. When it came to other parents, however, she didn’t mince words.
“The parents are the crazy ones for sending their children to school when they’re sick,” Jamison said. “Everyone has to suffer. Some parents do that because they don’t have a babysitter. [In that situation], I know I would keep my kids home for a week.”